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Interview: Artist Ebe Oke talks to Run Riot about his work and transformation

                                    Photo by Jamie Mcleod


He's studied under Stockhausen, collaborated with Brian Eno, and has recently been nominated by Laurie Anderson for the Rome Prize. Ebe Oke is the London based multifaceted artist who chose music, sound and performance as his predominant language to invite us into his very own realm of otherworldly beauty. He's a conveyor of otherworldly compositions that combine disparate concepts with crystalline execution, as well as a unique vocalist and composer.

Run Riot's Rebecca Horrox caught up with Ebe to talk sexuality, education, inspiration, the environment - and of course music, dance, and poetry.

Born in the deep American south of Georgia, Oke has made London his residence of choice from where he crafts compositions that combine sonic remnants of his rural upbringing with tropes of the musical avant-garde of the twentieth century through solid songwriting, which provides the perfect vehicle for his extraordinary quality as a vocalist.

After receiving a development deal through Rough Trade Records, which led him to collaborate and record with Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music, Oke was invited to study composition with legendary composer Karlheinz Stockhausen in Germany.

His recent compositions are complex in nature and yet universally accessible. His unusual instrumentation, which currently blend classical instruments with instruments of diverse cultural origins the world over and processed field recordings of birdsong and nature sounds form a well measured backdrop to his lyrical songmanship, which is delivered with an unshakeable clarity through his unforgettable androgynous voice. He pens musical pieces that remain raw and are simultaneously refined to a point, which gives them a quality of timelessness. His contemporary musical and lyrical poetry opens up a world of mysticism that leaves us with a rare spiritual listening experience. His music and his performances are haunting in the best sense.

Fresh out of the studio after finishing the recording of his latest album Valor, he has just started to perform this collection of deeply moving songs to live audiences. After seeing one of Ebe’s shows at Café Oto in London, Brian Eno invited him into the studio to collaborate on music, which they performed together at a recent Stop The War Coalition event.

Ebe Oke is currently performing with an electro-acoustic ensemble in which he plays the piano and sings. His enchanting live shows are of a rare engaging beauty, always new and surprising through changing improvised passages and multimedia elements. He regularly collaborates as a composer, dancer and performer with a collective of artists, ranging from his longterm collaborator and cellist David Barbenel to filmmaker Fritz Stolberg, performance artist Nissa Nishikawa and multidisciplinary artists Matthew Stone and Socrates Mitsios.

Rebecca Horrox: Is Ebe Oke your real name?
Ebe Oke:
Do I own my identity or am I it's host? Perhaps Ebe Oke chose to be me.

RH: What is your sexual identity?
I've enjoyed relationships with men and women. I'm not interested in gender, I'm interested in balance. I feel a connection to the native American tradition of the two spirit people or the ones possessed of both a male and female spirit who were often chosen to be the healers and shamans of their tribe. Fundamentally I feel between genders but physically I love having the body of a man; having a penis is great fun!

RH: Are you religious?
I grew up around around Jewish and Christian beliefs but from a very early age I questioned why something as personal as one's relationship with 'God' should come from books written by men. I've learned more about 'God' by sitting in absolute silence than anything I've ever read or been told. When I was older I learned that my distant grandmother Nahoga Moniac was a shaman to her Wind clan tribe of Creek or Muscogee Indians where I grew up in South Georgia. Many aspects of my childhood and adolescence suddenly made sense when my uncle told me the full story about this grandmother I'd always heard about; mainly my natural inclination to interpret the metaphors of nature and to place emphasis on experiential knowledge when it came to spiritual development. My whole life became an experiment from around the age of seven. Deities are like mental models and personifications of forces of nature and religions are like epic poems. I'm fascinated by Thoth, the ibis headed egyptian god of the moon, magic, mathematics, language, the creator of the matrix of reality through words who is often associated with Hermes Trismegistus (considered to be the founder of alchemy) and born of the homosexual union of Horus and Seth. He essentially was the most powerful god in the Egyptian pantheon yet had no desire to rule. He was a merlin-like figure that they all sought council from.

RH: You are a multidisciplinary artist involved most notably with music, poetry and dance. How do these practices correspond with each other?  
I've been writing poems since I was a little boy. When I read back through my journals last year I was shocked at how bizarre they were. When I was small - and composing for orchestras in my head (during forest quests) and had no idea how to get them out - I turned that music into poetry and paintings. Writing poetry is the most challenging art form for me. Music then came out when I was a teenager through the lens of poetry and painting. I made a record when I was fifteen titled 'Robotree'. It was composed out of birdsongs, alarm clocks, vacuum cleaners, telephones, circuit bent synths, my violin - and a primitive computer program I used to draw sounds with. I set out to annihilate music. I felt very alienated as a teenager and I think making that record saved me, and helped me heal myself. I've completed a new record, 'Valor' which came from a very different place within me. With 'Valor' I sought to create something beautiful, explore harmony, tell stories and write from the heart - which I didn't have any interest in, or even a clue about before. I'm still sometimes moved to tears by the sincerity of some of those songs. I dedicate it to Isabella Blow who was a dear friend and guiding light. My song, 'Against Nature' is an ode to her and features the handsome voice of Sam Lee. It's also the English translation of 'A Rebours' a book by the French writer Joris Karl Huysmans that is said to have inspired Oscar Wilde's 'Dorian Gray' and to have been the defining work of the Decadent movement which began around the time of Baudelaire's 'Les Fleurs du Mal'.

My interest in dance was borne of my interest in poetry and I regularly work with a choreographer / performance artist named Nissa Nishikawa whose vision I feel a great understanding and admiration for. Through performances where I have worked with her as a dancer I have learned many things about approaches to composing and when I have worked with her as a composer or vocalist her suggestions always offer new views or kicks outside of my comfort zone.  She also joins me onstage during musical performances from time to time.  

RH: What is your vision of the future?
It's probable that events like hurricane Sandy will increase in severity and that damage from these superstorms and natural disasters brought about by global warming will eventually exhaust the governments forcing people to reevaluate what it means to be alive and what is truly important to them as their attachments to the material world are obliterated. I believe what is most important is to address our relationships with ourselves first, and then each other, our brothers and sisters the animals and this planet that also has life whether or not science can validate that yet. I'd love to start an eco community with the collective of artists I work with and set up a permaculture farm finding ways to reconnect with the land and sidestep the consumerist trap.

RH: For you what is a seminal inspiration or an important driving force?  

RH: What effect do you wish to induce upon your audience?  
I don't know if I really wish to manipulate an audience. I'm more or less inviting them into my world to accompany me on an experience into the unknown. I don't know if I'd be clever enough for entertainment strategies, it bores me. I'm generally much more primitive in my approach; ancient ritual in a modern context informs my work. The examples of Joseph Beuys and Harry Partch helped reinforce that tendency within myself. Then again, this is coming from someone who questioned himself as a boy as to whether or not he was truly human. My mom told me I was hatched and found. Go figure.

RH: Who do you admire?  
I admire the 14-year old Pakistani activist and survivor Malala Yousafzai who was shot in the head by the Taliban for championing education for girls and Pussy Riot. It takes such bravery to put your life at stake to fearlessly stand up for what you believe in the face of danger. I also Admire Mark Boyle (the moneyless man) a writer and activist who has been living without money for the last four years. I admire these people because through their passions they offer new viable possibilities to the world.  

RH: Why do you live in London?  
The weather is milder than New York and I've never seen a cockroach in London. I'd like to think that London is a place that fosters innovation but since the art funding and education cuts I'm not so sure anymore. I was very impressed when I visited Norway to perform at the Punkt festival. They have a thriving experimental music and creative art scene that is facilitated by the government.  

RH: Your albums always feature class musicians - can you tell us a story about one of them?
Jess Bryant: I first heard about her through my friend Daniel Lea who owns a great studio called Golden Hum. He always spoke to me about how he wanted us to sing together and when he finally showed me her voice I felt like I knew her voice internally yet had never heard anything like it before. Pure, haunting and elemental. You can hear her exquisite backing vocals on 'The Gospel of Oke.'

RH: What's the most important advice you could give to a poet and musician like yourself living today?
Don't watch television, take extended breaks from the internet, avoid eating meat, go on long walks, love your fear, read copiously, keep good company and don't be afraid to show how much you care.

RH: Have you ever had an epiphany?  
Many, yet one in particular was truly miraculous. When I was a teenager I became mortally ill from all the bullshit I put up with from the cheerleaders and redneck bullies at school and a violent father at home. I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease and was told that I may not live for very long. Chaplins came to coach me on the possibility of death while I was nodding off to the drone hum of a morphine pump mainlined into my aorta. I was sent to a big university hospital in Atlanta Georgia where I was alone without family and had lot's of time to think. On the third month I found myself in the patient library reading about this disease and thinking on the walk back to my room as I wheeled a mobile of fluids, 'I don't have to have a disease', then 'I'm not going to have a disease', and then finally 'I don't have a disease'. I saw it as my birthright to be healthy and in essence I prayed to the centre of myself (the universe) giving thanks for that. I woke up the next morning and the doctors looked inside me and discovered that nothing could be found but healthy pink tissue. They scratched their heads and told me they were sorry but they mis-diagnosed me and that there was nothing actually wrong with me and promptly removed the morphine pump and plethora of tubes. For three or four days I lost my mind in an opiate haze of withdrawal that sent me over the edge. When I awoke shattered and clear I decided then that I would become a raw food vegan to heal myself from all the toxic medications, emotions and food that I didn't know better to avoid until that time. Being brought close to death and having a protracted spell of time to mull over my mortality was a life changing epiphany.   

RH: Where do you see yourself in 2-years time ?  
In a hut in the Peruvian rainforest.

RH: What animal do you empathise with?  
All animals, yet there are certain ones I identify with more closely. As Emerson said, "The whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind." There is a poetry of forms within the animal kingdom that has taught me great things about living. What are these animals? I think they'd rather not be named. To name something is to deprive one of it's pleasure.  

RH: What's your favourite sound?  
The Bellbird (or Anthuris Melanura) which I feature heavily in my song 'Avian Avatar' and the Bornean cicada (or Pomponia Imperatoria). The swamp's dusk chorus from my boyhood in South Georgia has influenced me far more than any composer. It changes dramatically with the seasons and rain.  

RH: What are you currently listening to?
I had the pleasure of having a preview of Brian Eno's incandescent new record LUX which is soon to be released. I'm also listening to Author and Punisher's new album Ursus Americanus, a composer that my friend and writer Demian Vitanza introduced me to named Leif Inge who took Beethoven's Ninth symphony and stretched it to 24 hours; and Cyclobe's record Wounded Galaxies Tap at the Window.


Official Ebe Oke links

Next concert:
Ebe Oke
concert also features The Irrepressibles
19:30, Thursday, 8th November 2012
at the Village Underground
54 Holywell Lane
London EC2A 3PQ


Questions by Rebecca Horrox



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